Suicide in Williams County, Ohio - A Wasted Life
By Pamela Pattison Lash (updated 2010)
It all started with the following article from a local newspaper found in the family files of the Williams County, Ohio Public Library in Bryan, Ohio. I was compiling a surname list from the file folders in the letter "D" when I stumbled upon this article on a suicide in Pioneer, Ohio. It was so moving that I planned to transcribe it and to include the transcription in our Williams County Genealogical Society newsletter, "Ohio's Last Frontier". I then decided to research the parties involved, which I did. Later, I stumbled upon several other newspaper articles that really threw me for a loop, as I had naively believed the cause of this suicide was strictly "from drink", as the article stated. Little did I know there would be another potential reason for this drastic action. The account I have written details a very interesting family life and a sad demise for one. One caveat I include is that we (modern readers) should not judge the subjects as we do not know all the facts, only those that have been herein discovered. I would also like to acknowledge the help I obtained with this detailing to Darcy Fritche, a descendant of a brother to the man who said his life was wasted. Darcy can be contacted at Darcyfritche@aol.com.
Tri-State Alliance, Pioneer, Ohio, 9 March 1894, p8
"A Wasted Life
Sid Darby, Suicide"
"That is what he called it, as I led him home to his wife and little ones. I had picked him up in the gutter. His ragged coat was smeared with mud, his face was bloated and his eyes were bloodshot. As I led him home he told me the story of his life. It was a story of temptation, weakness, failure. He had received a college education. He had stood high in several benevolent orders, but his love for strong drink had brought him down to the gutter. There I found him; and as I lifted him up he said, 'my life is wasted'. We reach his home, a drunkard's home. He had not only wasted his own life but had blasted the lives of wife and children. I urged him to shake off the chains that bound him, but in his utter despair, he cried 'too late'. I told him of the loving Christ who would help him break his chains but he had no hope. He said he had tried again and again but he had always failed, and now he would end his miserable life. I left him and fearing that he would destroy himself, I suggested that he be watched through the night. His neighbors thought there was no danger, so I returned to my own home and thought much on this 'wasted life'. Through the night the poor drunkard was in my dreams. My first thought on the following morning was of 'the wasted life'.
As I went out to begin the duties of the day I noticed an unusual commotion in the part of town where the poor drunkard lived. Then the word came to me, 'He is dead. He committed suicide'. I hastened to the scene of the tragedy, and there before me, suspended from the branch of the tree, was the blackened corpse of the man whose life had been wasted. The impression made by the object lesson will never be erased while memory lasts. And yet there were those upon whom this awful tragedy seemed to have no effect. Two or three men were standing within a hundred feet of the dangling corpse. These men had a few hours before purchased for the suicide the liquor, which made him drunk, and now in the presence of the blackened remains of their former companion they poured more of the fiery liquid down their throats. And thus the wasting of lives goes on, which, but for the apathy of Christian people, might be greatly lessened at least.
The subject of this story was the son of Christian people, the child of many prayers, but his life was wasted by the demon drink. Are we doing all we can to destroy this demon? " Rev J. L. Rusbridge in the Presbyterian Messenger as told by J. F. Hadley, (an event that took place years before as I discovered).
Many of you will share my sentiments on such an emotional piece; it was so sad. I wondered who was this man and what happened to his wife and children? I felt compelled to research his family to give some meaning to his "wasted life". As I stated earlier, I found more newspaper articles that turned my first impressions toward a completely different direction. Here are these articles.
Bryan Press, 14 Aug 1879, p3
"Last Thursday morning Sidney A. Derby of Pioneer provided himself with a piece of clothesline and went into Joy's Woods, just south of town (Pioneer) and committed suicide by hanging to a limb of a fallen tree. Intemperance and family trouble are supposed to have been the causes of the rash act. Mr. Derby was a member of Co G 68th OVI during the Civil War. His remains were taken to West Unity, his former home, last Friday for burial."
Fountain City Argus, 14 August 1879, p3
"On last Thursday, Sid Derby, who had been mentioned last week as being bound over to the Court of Common Pleas, on the charge of attempt to commit rape on his daughter, hung himself in Joy's Woods, near Pioneer. He was seen on the streets of town about 7 AM and discovered between 8-9 AM hanging by the neck, dead. This was a sad ending of a misspent life; ever since the close of the war he has been going downhill at almost railroad speed. He had threatened his life on several occasions before, but the thing had become old, and even his family thought his threats were only intended to scare them. This time he put his threat into successful execution. The sympathies of the community are warmly extended to his wife."
Fountain City Argus, 7 Aug 1879, p3
"Mrs. Clara Hart, nee Derby, last week swore out a warrant against her father, Sid Derby, on charge of attempting to rape. Constable Jones went to Pioneer and arrested Derby and lodged him in jail. He had a preliminary trial and was bound over to the Court of Common Pleas under $100 bail. If there is any truth to the charge, the bail is entirely light.
As I began my research I discovered there were several Derby families located in Williams County, Ohio, but the account had listed the victim's name as Sid Darby. I checked the census records of 1900 for the family of Sid Darby, living in Pioneer, Madison Twp, Williams County, Ohio, but I quickly discovered there were no such people living there. I backtracked to 1880 with some success and then checked the 1870 and 1860 census records. It was then that I determined Sid Darby was really Sidney Alverus Derby, and the event was not in 1894 but in 1879, some 15 years earlier. Now I had the person and the time frame. I then located the three newspaper articles included above.
No man is an island unto himself; with this in mind Sidney Derby's story must be looked at in the context of the greater picture - that of his parents and grandparents, his wife and her family, and his children.
Erastus and Ru Derby
Erastus Hitchcock Derby, born 14 September 1810, in Hawley, Franklin Co, Massachusetts, was the son of Edward and Ruth Hitchcock Derby. Erastus, the ninth children of fourteen, was born under a wandering star. He was a year old when his parents relocated the family to Rome, Oneida Co, New York. Father Edward Derby, a carpenter, went off to fight in the War of 1812, earning the rank of captain. After his military service was completed, Edward moved his family to Sangerfield, Oneida Co, NY and they were enumerated in the 1830 federal census for that place (Roll 99 p164).
Erastus attended an academy in Waterville, PA to learn the tailoring trade, but wanderlust led him to seek his fortune in the Wild Wild West. He and his brother Thomas Derby ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio where they worked on the canals. It was there that Erastus met the love of his life, Ruhamah Knowlton, the niece of the owner of Knowlton's Store and Roadhouse. Ephraim, the uncle, and Sidney, her father, were early pork merchants and storekeepers, but by that time they were in the canal business.
Ru Knowlton, born on 6 September 1817 possibly in Dunbarton, Merrimack Co, NH, although some accounts claim Susquehanna, PA, was the eldest daughter of Sidney Algernon and Harriet Burnham Knowlton, natives of Ashford, Windham Co, CT and Dunbarton, Merrimack Co, NH, respectively.
Erastus and Ru were married on 10 August 1834 and moved to Bear Creek, Hancock Co, Illinois before July 1835 with Ru's parents who intended to become farmers. On 5 May 1836 the Derbys became parents of their first child, son Freeman E. Derby.
About that time Mormon missionaries visited them from Nauvoo, IL and soon Erastus and Ru plus his in-laws became Mormons. Convinced there would be more tailoring work if they moved to a bigger city, Erastus transferred his family to Nauvoo in 1840 and became part of the Nauvoo Legion; Nauvoo was located on the banks of the Mississippi River so a large amount of commerce took place there. By then the Derbys had two more children, Sidney Alverus, born 31 Mar 1838, and Harriet A., born and died on 29 June 1840. Erastus' father Edward Derby had died in Pittsburgh, Allegheny Co, PA, never to see his two grandsons.
After joining the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, Erastus was elevated to the role of elder, in which capacity he was allowed to marry people. Records show that he as Rev Erastus H. Derby did indeed marry a couple, Gilbert H. Rolfe and Eliza Jane Bates, on 6 Jan 1842 in Nauvoo. On 5 July 1843 Erastus, an elder of the church, was sent on special mission to Lee Co, IL, to seek converts to his faith. He also became a sheriff in Nauvoo and even ran for Hancock County Sheriff.
The people of Nauvoo were having difficulties with the Indians and the plural marriage beliefs of the Mormons, which made it difficult to practice their faith. In 1842 their leader, Joseph Smith, was threatened by mob violence to the extent that Erastus and others hid Smith for a time until tempers cooled down. Erastus was in the party of men who tried to negotiate Smith's surrender, but Smith was later killed. Brigham Young, the new Mormon leader, planned to take his people to Utah; Ru Derby was not keen on sharing Erastus with another wife, and Erastus was being pressured to do that very thing. Marriage records for the Nauvoo Temple Endowment show that Erastus and Ru were formally married in the Mormon Church on 6 Jan 1846. It now seemed prudent for Erastus to move his family across the river to Council Bluff, Iowa.
Erastus had always wanted to establish a sawmill, so he and his brother Thomas Derby set out to do this, but once again the people of Council Bluffs did not welcome the Mormons to their community. Mormon records state that the Derbys lived in Garden Grove Branch, Decatur, IA in 1847. While at Council Bluffs Erastus was urged to court a girl who would make an excellent wife, so he visited her. Local folks saw him there and proceeded to make a scene. This lady had enough of the ruckus and poured hot coffee on some of the men, blinding one individual for life. When Ru found out about this she gave Erastus and ultimatum. The idea of a sawmill was put on hold and the family once again moved to Atchison County, Missouri, where Erastus served as sheriff. By this time the couple had more children, Martha Cornelia. born 2 June 1841; died 7 Sept 1842; Louis Philip, born 14 Feb 1844; Ruhamah Ruth, born 31 March 1846; and Joseph Ephraim, born 24 July 1848 in Atchison Co, MO.
The Mormons were later willing to give Erastus another chance so the Derbys packed up and moved back to Council Bluffs. However, the pressure to take another wife was still being exerted. According to the 1850 Pottawattamie District 21, IA federal census (3 Sept 1850, p71-71a), Erastus Derby and his family were enumerated as follows: Erastus 40 MA tailor, Ruhanah 33 PA, Freeman 14 IL, Sidney 12 IL, Louis 6 IL, Ruhanah 4 IL, Joseph 2 MO. Their ninth child, Julia Ann, was born on 13 Oct 1850 and Mary, the next daughter, was born on 6 Mar 1852 but died four days later.
For numerous reasons it was time to make a fresh start and put some distance between the Derbys and Council Bluffs, so once again the family moved to Chicago, Cook Co, IL, where son George Quincy Franklin was born on 16 March 1855. Later another son, Edward Francis, appeared on the scene, 9 September 1857. Erastus had plenty of carpentry work to keep him busy, but the wanderlust hit again and by the fall of 1859 he purchased land in West Unity, Brady Twp, Wms Co, OH. His brother Thomas Derby and family also moved there, as that was where his wife's Badger relations lived.
Their last child, Jennie Wilhelmina, was born there on 8 Nov 1860. Census reference to 1860 shows the Derby family enumerated in Brady Twp, Wms Co, OH federal census, p140b, as Erastus Durby 49 MA, Ruhamah 42 PA, Freeman 23 IL, Louis 16 IL, Ruhamah 14 IL, Joseph 11 IL, George 5 IL, and Edward 2 IL. Second son, Sidney Alverus Derby, who married Adelaid Louise Rockwell, on 2 July 1859, Wms Co, OH (Marriages V3 p180), was listed in the 1860 West Unity, Brady Twp, Wms Co, OH federal census records as SA Derby 22 IL carpenter, Adelaid 17 OH, DL Rockwell 58 CT boot and shoe business, and Hannah 52 CT.
When the Civil War was raging, Erastus and his sons, Freeman, Sidney, and Louis, enlisted. Sidney joined Co C 100th OVI, while the others enlisted in Co B 68th OVI. Erastus, a sergeant, returned home from Cairo, IL, after receiving a surgeon's certificate of disability on 5 May 1863, but later joined the Veterans' Reserve and was discharged in 1865. By the 1870 Brady Twp, Wms Co, OH federal census (15 June 1870, p23), the Derbys were listed as Erastus 52 PA, Rohama 52 PA, George 15 IL, Edward 12 IL, Jennie 9 OH, Sarah Moore 17 OH, and William Derby 8 OH.
About 1871 Erastus and Ru decided to move again; their destination this time was Le Suer, Le Suer Co, MN. Erastus Derby and his family were enumerated in the 1880 federal census there as EH Derby 69 MA carpenter, Ruhama 68 PA, George Q. 25 IL painter, Edward 23 IL barber, and Jennie 19 OH, and Erastus was listed on the 1890 US Veterans Schedule federal census for Le Seuer, MN; he died on 3 December 1890 of heart failure; his widow, Ru, departed life on 29 Dec 1896, in Fargo, ND.
Ru's father, Sidney Algernon Knowlton, was the seventh generation from the founder of that family in America. He was born on 24 May 1792 in Ashford, Windham Co, CT, the oldest child of Ephraim and Jemima Farnham Knowlton; Ephraim was the son of Lt. Daniel Knowlton, a soldier in the American Revolution. Sidney married Harriet Burnham, daughter of John and Sarah Andrews Burnham, on 30 June 1816; Harriet was born on 7 Mar 1797 in Dunbarton, Merrimack Co, MA. Sidney Knowlton and his youngest brother, Ephraim Knowlton, Jr., and their families lived in Cumminsville, a suburb of Cinncinnati, OH by 1825. They supervised the building of the Miami Canal between 1825-1827 and owned the first boat, the Hannibal of Carthage, to use the canal. It was Ephraim's store at Knowlton Corners, an early roadhouse north of Cinncinnati where Erastus Derby became acquainted with Ruhamah Knowlton.
Later as stated, the Knowltons moved to Bear Creek, Hancock Co, IL. Bear Creek was also known as Basco or Knowlton's Settlement in honor of Ru's family. Younger brother to Ru's father, Ephraim Knowlton, decided to stay in Ohio. Sidney Knowlton and his family became zealous Campbellite followers and were baptized by Elder John Page in Feb 1840. His children ranged in ages of 23 to two years of age. Sidney Knowlton was an incorporater of the Nauvoo Agriculture and Manufacturing Association by 27 Feb 1841 and became a successful farmer. In 1842 Sidney was called to mission for his church and made the only mission trip known for him as far east as the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania.
When the families decided to leave Bear Creek, Ru's father took care of selling their land and moving the livestock west with financial help from Sidney Knowlton's brother, Ephraim of Ohio. Sidney had bought and sold property in Bear Creek from 19 Aug 1836 - 19 Apr 1846, so there was a considerable amount of land business to execute.
In 1848 the Knowltons traveled as far west as Grand Island (Fort Kearney) and Sidney built the first home there where he boarded officers of the fort and took care of the government beef. Then between 6 July 1849 - 11 Sept 1849 the family journeyed to Utah and Sidney built the first lime kiln there. They had many provisions when they arrived at this spot which made them perhaps more financially stable than others there.
The Knowltons settled in the original 19th Ward and built a house on Lot 8 Block 114 but they also owned property on Lot 7 Block 117 on which Sidney erected a large home where the family remained. Sidney was the chairman of the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society by Oct 1860. The next year he was selected as commissioner to locate university lands in Utah and raised livestock in Skull Valley, Tooele Co, UT. One of the tributaries of Red Butte Canyon bears Sidney Knowlton's name.
Ru's younger brothers, John Quincey Knowlton and Benjamin Franklin Knowlton, followed the Mormon practice of plural marriages as did her father Sidney who married at least five more women (Margaret Slater, 25 Mar 1855; Cecelia Verston Johnson, 25 Mar 1855; Mary Ann Wood, 16 Nov 1856; annulled 12 Mar 1857; Charlotte Regina Artegren, 19 Jan 1863; and Mary Mortenson, 17 Jan 1863. In fact Sidney sired another child, Abraham Benjamin Knowlton, born 30 Oct 1863, six months after Sidney died on 20 Apr 1863 @70Y. This child lived to be 81 years old and served his Utah community as a mail carrier. Sidney died intestate so the administration and distribution of his estate fell to widow Harriet and son George; the estate was valued at $9,000, with the final distribution made on 10 Dec 1868. Whether his daughter and son-in-law, Ru and Erastus Derby received anything is not currently known. Mother Harriet Knowlton did on 10 Sept 1881 @84Y.
Ru Derby was the only one of the Knowlton children not to remove to Utah, but her son, Louis Phillip Derby, came to Utah for a short time and some of his children married there. For more information on the Knowlton family one should consult The Utah Knowltons, Ezra Clark Knowlton, 1971; Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah, p992; Knowlton Ancestry, Charles Stocking, 1897, p334-335; and Errata and Addenda, George Henry Knowlton, 1903, p105-106.
Sidney and Adelaide Derby
Sidney's bride, Adelaide, born c1842 OH, was the daughter of Delazon and Hannah Lockweed Smith Derby. The Rockwells came from Norwalk, Fairfield Co, CT and were married in Richland Co, OH on 1 June 1825. Delazon and his family were listed on the 1850 Brady Twp, Wms Co, OH federal census (29 Aug 1850, p5) as: Delan 47 CT shoemaker, Hannah 42 CT, Francis 20 OH carpenter, Hulda 14 OH, and Adelade 8 OH, plus Orlando Fitch 6 OH. As earlier mentioned, the Derbys lived with the Rockwells according to the 1860 Brady Twp, Wms Co, OH federal census.
Sidney Derby was a corporal upon enlistment on 5 Aug 1862 in Toledo, OH at the age of 24; he served three years and was a first lieutenant in the US Colored Heavy Artillery; he resigned on 28 Nov 1865 in Greensboro, TN but later was commissioned a captain in 1866. In the 1870 Brady Twp, Wms Co, OH federal census, PO Stryker, (1 June 1870, p14), the Derbys were listed as Sidney 36 OH dentist, Adeline 28 OH, Clara 8 MI, and Lewis A.1 MI, living with DL Rockwell 58 CT shoe and boot business and Hannah 52CT. Sidney was listed as a dentist so sometime between 1860-1870 he learned this trade; it was probably in the military service or shortly afterward. His son Lewis A. was born in Williamston, Ingham Co, MI; why the Derbys were there is currently unknown. Daughter Clara was also born in Michigan before or during the time of Sidney's enlistment. Again why were the Derbys in Michigan?
To summarize, Sidney and Adeline were the parents of three children, Clara b 1862, Lewis A b 4 Jan 1869,Williamston, Ingham Co, MI, and Nellie Hannah b 11 Sept 1873. It appears from the previously mentioned newspaper articles that Sidney was charged with rape in early Aug or late July 1879 and killed himself on 7 Aug 1879; his body was buried in Rings Cemetery in West Unity, Brady Twp, Wms Co, OH, with the tombstone inscription "CW Vet Co C 100th OVI b 1838". By the 1880 Brady Twp, Wms Co, OH federal census PO West Unity (25 June 1880, p514b) Delazon Rockwell was enumerated as Delezon 78 CT shoemaker with crippled limb, Hannah 72 CT, and daughter Adeline Derby 37 OH, with her children Clara 18 OH, Louis 11 MI, and Nellie 7 OH.
According to the newspaper accounts of Sidney's legal trouble, his daughter Clara Hart would have been married before Aug 1879 but there is no marriage license for her in Wms Co. By the 1880 federal census Clara was 18 and single, living with her mother and maternal grandparents. There is a marriage record for a Clara Derby and a John C. Beidler, 6 May 1881, Branch Co, MI. Nothing more is currently known of Clara.
On 8 Sept 1883 in Jackson, MI Adelaide Derby Rockwell married Jonathan P. Lane. Is this the widow of Sidney Derby? Follow-up census information showed some interesting things. In the 1900 Prairie Twp, Wyandotte Co, Kansas federal census, a Jonathan F. Lane lived alone. He was born in April 1840 IN, married once, and was sixty years old. Could he be the missing second husband of the widow Derby?
Also in the 1900 Lemont Twp, Cook Co, IL federal census there was a Sylvester Derby born Apr 1837 NY, widower, and lumber merchant, and Adeline Lane, born May 1830 NY, aged 70, a single lodger. This could be the woman who married Jonathan Lane in Jackson, MI, but the age and place of birth are not the same for the widow of Sidney Derby. This Adelaide was Adelaide Derby Rockwell, while the widow of Sidney was Adelaide Rockwell Derby. In 1910 Lemont Twp, Cook Co, IL Sylvester Derby who was now married a second time was listed with new wife, Alice H, a German immigrant, and lodger Adeline Lane, now 79 years old from IL. I believe this is not the widow of Sidney Derby; so what happened to her? Her future events are not known at this time.
However, across Cook Co, IL in Chicago, one does find Sidney Derby's son, Louis, enumerated in the 1900 federal census as follows: Louis Derby b Jan 1869 (31) OH-Eng-Eng, barber, married c1894, having one child; wife Lizzie, b June 1873 (26) IL; son Earl S. b June 1897 (2) IL. Cook Co, IL marriage records reveal that Louis A. Derby married Lizzie Fertig, on 11 Sept 1893.
In 1910 Louis was married to a Mary L c1903; he and his family were living in a boarding house in Macon, Bibb Co, GA, and he worked in a barbershop. By 1920 Louis and son Earl were living in Florida where Louis was a showman in a carnival. Earlier Earl had served his country in WWI. Louis died c1954 in Osceola, FL; his son Earl Sidney died c1966. It is interesting to note that Earl Sidney had a son Robert Sidney, so the "Sidney" name had come down through the generations; it is also possible that the Sidney name was an honor to Ru's father, Sidney Knowlton, rather than to Sidney Derby.
Youngest daughter Nellie married Clayton Hamilton on 11 September 1892 in Yale, Guthrie Co, IA. Why Nellie was in IA has not been currently discovered. She in turn was the mother of three children, none of whom carried down the name of Sidney or Adelaide. Was Sidney Derby a man with a "wasted life"? You be the judge.
Questions to Ponder
1. Did the wanderlust of the Derby family and the experiences during his Civil War service impact the mood and behavior of Sidney Derby? Also, since we know so little about his relation with his wife, Adelaide, would they have benefited from modern-day marriage counseling? Was this alleged assault on Clara, the daughter, the result of a tortured soul in the throes of an alcoholic stupor - in other words would this have happened, if indeed it did, had Sidney been sober? Also, could Clara have been angry with her father and chose this public humiliation as a way to get even? If so, she would have also brought shame to herself given the mind-set of that timeframe. Rape was considered the fault of the victim.
2. Why didn't Sidney take his family to Minnesota when his parents moved there c1871? Also remember that his aunt and uncle, Thomas and Martha Badger Derby chose to stay in Williams Co, OH as well. Martha was the aunt of Phebe Badger, first wife of Sidney Derby's brother, Freeman Derby.
3. What happened to the husband of Clara Derby Hart? Indeed, what happened to Clara? Her mother Adelaide? The Rockwells? They all seem to disappear after the 1880 federal census.
4. Why is Nellie in IA c1892 to become Mrs. Hamilton? Did she live with relatives? Was there any communication with her mother, sister, or brother?
5. Did Sidney take his own life or was it meant to look like suicide, given the nature of the formal charges against him? It would not have been difficult to lynch him and pass it off as suicide. Remember there was no CSI-type investigation in those days. The facts that he was a drunk, was accused of a heinous crime, and perhaps other facts we do not know would have made him an easy target to dispose of and have the sympathy of the community behind this. Conspiracy theories have been born from much less information.
Who was the Good Samaritan?
Now the JF Hadley who told the story in 1894 was Jesse F. Hadley, a retail dry goods merchant who came to Williams County in the 1860's and lived in Pioneer. He married Anna Johnson and they had four children, some of similar age to the Derby children. Being a local merchant he should have been familiar with most of the inhabitants of a small village such as Pioneer, Ohio in 1879.
The evening he picked Derby out of the gutter would have been 6 August 1879. Small towns are notoriously filled with gossip of the day, so it would seem ridiculous for us to assume that Hadley did not know about the legal charges. He was being careful in his story to allude to them but not overtly mention them. The reader is more or less led down the garden path to believe the entire problem and eventual suicide dealt only with Sidney's fondness for alcohol. Polite society of the time and respect for the feelings and reputation of the widow and her children would have been expected. So why did Hadley bring up the subject 15 years later? In that time frame the temperance movement was very popular; also I suspect none of the principals of the story such as the widow or the children lived in the area, so it could be openly discussed. Was Hadley trying to weakly disguise Sid Derby by referring to him as Sid Darby? Food for thought.
Side Story of Sidney Derby's Brother - see Divorces - Derby